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Parks Week 2024 | Interview with Meghan Talarowski, Founder of Studio Ludo

Posted on 04.03.2024 in Company News , landscape arechitect , landscape design , landscape trends , Playground Design , Playgrounds

For Parks Week 2024, we had the privilege of sitting down with Meghan Talarowski, a leading public space practitioner and the visionary behind Studio Ludo. With degrees in architecture and landscape architecture, Meghan is not only a certified playground safety inspector but has played a pivotal role in shaping parks across the United States since 2008. Recognised by esteemed publications like The New York Times, World Landscape Architecture Magazine, and Curbed, Meghan’s passion for play has made a lasting impact. In this Q&A, Meghan shares insights into her journey, philosophy on play, and the innovative work Studio Ludo has undertaken.

Q1: Meghan, you are obviously incredibly passionate about play. Where did this passion spark from? Did you have an ‘aha’ moment or was it an experience?

Meghan: It was literally a magazine ad! The Trust for Public Land (TPL) is a non-profit that conserves land and builds great places to play in US cities. They were in the midst of a capital campaign for playgrounds in San Francisco and the ad was a picture of a girl swinging that dissolved into a drawing…it said “Without you, this picture is incomplete.” That was the ‘aha’ moment that I could design play for a living!

I worked for TPL for three years, designing and studying playgrounds and the people in them, which encouraged me to go back to school for landscape architecture. Once I graduated, my family was transferred to London in 2015, where I launched my first study of playgrounds with my research assistant, my then one year old daughter. This study was the start of my non-profit, Studio Ludo, whose mission is building better play through research, design, and advocacy. We use our studies of play behavior, which now include data on over 60,000 people in 100 different play environments, to inform our designs of over 30 play spaces and counting!

Q2: What is your philosophy or definition of play? Do you think it can be defined?

Meghan: Peter Grey has gotten the closest by describing the five most agreed-upon characteristics of human play as “self-chosen and self-directed; intrinsically motivated; guided by mental rules, but leav(ing) room for creativity; imaginative; (and) conducted in an alert, active, but relatively non-stressed frame of mind.”

One of the mistakes that I think we make is assuming that play is solely for children. I believe strongly, and my research backs this up, that play continues throughout life. It is our job as designers to support that play, particularly in public space.

Q3: You have conducted three major play research studies at Studio Ludo. Was there anything that surprised you in your research from the US and London? Did the results differ significantly?

All of our studies have shown the same thing…half of people in playgrounds are not children. Play does not stop after childhood, it just evolves. People are craving what play gives…freedom, connection, movement, and joy. We need to think outside of our standard 0-12 age range, as defined by safety standards, and consider what a playground for all ages would look like.

We know from our data that the most popular play equipment for all ages are swings. And that grownups play the most and are more physically active WITH their kids. We also know that everyone loves being up high, moving fast, climbing, water play…and trees! More than any other play feature or piece of equipment we could install…mature trees support the most use and stay time in a playground.

When I think about how I want to play at a playground…I want to swing (on seats big enough for me to use) and race to the top of a giant treehouse to go down a giant slide (wide enough that I don’t get stuck inside). I want to climb, and perch, and dangle, and laugh…reclaiming the joy of my childhood, only more so, because I’m doing it with my own kids. People want to be in community with each other, and play is one of the best ways to do it.

Q4: During Covid, Studio Ludio continued to bring play to 200,000 Philly kids who were out of school, and playgrounds were closed. You created 1,200 play packs within a week. Can you tell us more about this remarkable initiative?

Meghan: When Covid started, many of our construction projects screeched to a halt, and our national research study was put on hold. But as a parent, I was now juggling running a struggling business with supporting my kids in online school, learning how to use a computer in kindergarten. It was madness, and chaos, and tears…and I also knew I wasn’t alone, and that families across the city were experiencing the same thing.

The Play Packs were born from a need to support my own children, through art activities and materials, along with supporting my staff, at a time when we found ourselves floundering. It grew from there into a massive community initiative, where we partnered with local food pantries, community farms, the children’s hospital, YMCA, parks and recreation, child-care providers, after school programs, and play streets.

They were used to encourage parents to bring kids back to the doctor for check-ups and vaccinations. Books were added to support reading initiatives. They were adapted for grief support programs for children that lost a caregiver to Covid. They evolved into a summer activity box that had 90 days of outdoor activities, including seeds and soil to grow your own food and support healthy eating.  They supported our community at a time when we needed a little bit of hope, and I am so proud of the impact they had.

Q5: What are some trends you are currently observing in the realm of public spaces and play?

It’s a trend I want to start, actually, and that’s building for all ages. Our research is so clear, and spaces that we have designed that reflect that research, like our recently opened Anna C. Verna Playground at FDR Park, have shown that if you build it, they will come!

We have the largest swing set in North America, that supports 30 people to swing at the same time. I see more teens there than in any playground I have studied or designed. And so many grownups…many without kids! The biggest Asian market in Philadelphia is based in the park, and it is one of the top birding sites in the city. There are also tons of dog walkers and hikers. We see so many people gravitating to the site, swinging for a bit, laughing and connecting, and then heading out a little brighter than when they came.

The treehouses were intentionally designed for adult bodies to fit, along with kids. There are three different towers, with different levels of risk taking, from a simple spiral to a short slide, to a ladder and nets that lead up to a 30’ tall slide. Whoops of laughter and “woohoos” are coming from everyone… as is heckling and encouragement to get to the top. Its packed even on cold days, full of people from every neighbourhood, and I honestly couldn’t be prouder of what we have built. It’s a real community space.

Q6: Do you have a personal favourite among the spaces you’ve worked on or encountered? If so, what makes it stand out to you, and are there particular elements that resonate with your vision of an ideal play environment?

While I love the large-scale playgrounds we have been involved with, like the Arches Playground at Gene Leahy Mall in Omaha, NE and the NW Resiliency Park, in Hoboken, NJ I’m most proud of the small interventions that I know have a huge impact. A few months ago, a resident tracked us down to share how much she loved playing in the tot lot that we built for the City of Lansdowne, PA . In less than 1/8 of an acre, we provided a shade canopy with seating for snacks and several shaded benches with good lines of site for caregivers, as well as a swing with a basket for kids and grownups to swing together and a few baby buckets, a cute birdhouse climber and perch, several climbing mounds with embedded logs and boulders and a slide into sand, rain gardens full of native plantings and small birdhouses, and several spinners. Designed for 0-5 year olds, we see neighbours sitting in it watching birds and chatting, older kids and teens hanging out at the tables, and young parents connecting at the swings.

It provides all of the elements on our “Checklist of a Great Place to Play” that we shared in our National Study of Playgrounds booklet (https://issuu.com/studioludoorg/docs/nsopbooklet), and it turned what was a parking lot into a little piece of paradise for the neighbourhood.

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